Discover Vail Valley by horseback
Come September, Kym Luck can hardly wait for Mother Nature to roll out the red-and-orange carpet.
As owner of Vail Stables, a horseback riding outfit found near the base of Vail Mountain, Luck enjoys the little perks of every season: aromatic sagebrush in spring, blossoming wildflowers in summer, snow-laden meadows in winter.
But autumn is truly an otherworldly experience. For a few short weeks each year, the slopes and hillsides surrounding Vail begin to burst in amber hues. Changing leaves cover local trails in a bright, multi-colored carpet some hundreds of miles long, while deer and elk wander through forests before hunkering down for the cold months ahead. It’s Mother Nature’s “welcome to winter” party, so to speak — no invite required.
It’s also the sort of eye candy just anyone can appreciate — curious road trippers regularly pull to the shoulder of Interstate 70 to snap quick photos — but for tried-and-true equestrians like Luck, riding a horse through flaming aspen glades is on par with trekking through Eden.
“It can smell so delicious when you’re in the aspen glades,” said Luck, a Seattle native who came to Colorado for a taste of dry, sunny riding weather and never left. “Every day changes just a little bit. The canopy changes colors and when the leaves start to fall, it’s like golden confetti. It’s almost like the rest of the trees are decorated for Christmas already. It just is the best place to be.”
After more than two decades in Vail, Luck still revels in the sensory overload of horseback riding through the Rocky Mountains. Autumn riding is a serene yet visceral experience, even for newcomers. It’s more deliberate than mountain biking, and unlike hiking, riders don’t even have to worry about placing one foot in front of the other. The horses play silent tour guide, giving their human counterparts oodles of time to enjoy the freedom of simply being in nature.
“It’s a whole sensation is what it is,” Luck said. “It’s an experience to ride a horse through the mountains in the fall. Every sense is perking up.”
Like other local outfits, Vail Stables hosts a slew of rides, from one-hour intro tours to three-hour treks deep into the surrounding woods. The terrain here is the true star: Even on short rides — the perfect introduction for first-time equestrians — the trails go from flat and peaceful to steep and mountainous.
Take the one-hour ride. It’s a quick jaunt, led by one of Luck’s guides and powered by one of the stables’ gentle, mellow horses. The trip meanders through meadows and aspen glades toward Rocky Point, one of Vail’s best overlooks — and well-kept secrets. Even at a relatively mellow 8,800 vertical feet, the stop has gorgeous views of Vail Mountain and the Gore Range. Lucky riders occasionally catch dustings of early snow later in the season.
“It’s a magical place to be,” Luck said. “It really is an enchanted forest, and then when you come out in the open areas, Golden Peak is right in front of you. You’re able to see all the way from Gore Range to Beaver Creek.”
At Bearcat Stables near Edwards, autumn brings a different kind of sensory awe. Co-owner Gavin Selway and his crew also lead short treks, winding from their home along Squaw Creek through the lush Homestead area. True to its name, the trail system was one of the first used by Eagle County residents in the early 20th century, including Ellis “Bearcat” Bearden, the final original property owner before the stables turned his land into a horseback oasis.
Although they’re only a few miles from Vail, the trails around Bearcat Stables can be wildly different. They’re a touch more open and airy — Luck said the Vail trails are windy and rocky thanks to the terrain — with space for advanced riders to gallop on longer outings. The vistas are just as impressive, but for regular visitors, they give a glimpse at sights often overlooked in Vail: New York Mountains in the Sawatch Range to the south, portions of the pristine Flat Tops Wilderness to the southwest. Then there’s the wildlife.
“We give you that sense of not being surrounded by resorts,” said Selway. “We’ve been seeing lots of elk and deer, some big bucks, along with our resident coyotes that come out and say hi when we’re riding.”
Just beyond civilization
As Selway hints at, horseback riding through local forests is a stellar way to escape everyday humdrum. The short rides at Bearcat, Vail Stables and others are good for all ages — “We cater to kids and 90 year olds,” Selway said — but for experienced riders and adult-only groups, he suggests a more adventurous outing.
At three hours, Bearcat’s popular Big Park trip is the perfect middle-ground between an introductory jaunt and the stable’s signature Vail to Aspen route, a four-day overnight hut trip. Big Park winds from Squaw Creek to high above Cordillera, leading through thick forests before emerging into a high, clear meadow at nearly 10,000 vertical feet.
“Once the leaves start changing, I don’t think you can get a better ride than that one in fall,” Selway said. “It doesn’t have to be advanced ride — the terrain isn’t that treacherous, but you end up in huge, open meadows with these incredible views.”
The Big Park trip is easily one of Selway’s favorites in autumn. Even though groups occasionally gets caught in afternoon rainstorms — still a Colorado trademark, even into September — his guides outfit everyone with rain slickers before leaving, and each horse carries a saddlebag to store water, cameras, cell phones and the like.
Yet even with every modern convenience at hand, Selway enjoys the sense of peaceful isolation during the Big Park trip.
“It’s for people who really want to get that Colorado experience,” Selway said. “You get away from seeing the neighborhoods, the homes, the development. It’s absolutely phenomenal.”
Back in Vail, Luck and crew offer a similar experience with their three-hour ride. It has similar touchstones — sweeping vistas, cozy aspen forests, that ever-present carpet of gold — but the specifics are noticeably different. The route heads west from the stables, leading horses and riders over three creek crossings before ending at Elk Springs. Luck admits that sitting in the saddle for three hours can be tough for beginners, but don’t be intimidated. The ride is worth the ache.
“You might get stiff for a few days afterwards, but the memory lasts for a lifetime,” Luck said. “How can you forget riding through the forests and slurping out of the springs?”
Phil Lindeman is a freelance writer for the Vail Daily. Email comments about this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.